Monday, July 07, 2008

2008 SFSFF13—The Evening Class Interview With Stephen Salmons, Part Two

Part One of my conversation with Stephen Salmons can be found here.

* * *

Guillén: This last year I met and spoke with Daisuke Miyao who wrote a book on Sessue Hayakawa. The book added a whole new layer to my understanding of silent cinema that I'd not considered before. Again, I think this fits into something of a cultural zeitgeist with regard to film preservation and—as you're detailing—discovering "lost" films. What he made me aware of—and I'm hoping you can comment upon this—is the transnational nature of silent cinema and how many U.S. silent films have been recovered from German and French resources. I know that in this year's program you're paying something of an homage to that reality?

Salmons: We're actually experimenting with that in a couple of ways. First of all, an even greater discovery for me through doing the festival is to show films from other countries that I've never heard of before and seeing just how advanced their filmmaking had become by the '20s also. Everything we've shown from China, from India, from Mexico….

Guillén: Because of my love for Mexican film, the first program I attended at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was your screening of the silent film Tepeyac (1917) on the Virgin of Guadelupe.

Salmons: It's very interesting that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is going to be showing The Iron Fist (El Puño de hierro, 1927). That was one of the films we looked at when we decided we wanted to show a Mexican film. We heard there were a few films. When we contacted the archive, they said there was The Iron Fist and Tepeyac. The Iron Fist is a very interesting melodrama but we wanted to show something more representative of Mexican culture and The Iron Fist was essentially an imitation of American culture. It's a wild movie; but, we picked Tepeyac because we wanted something more authentic.

The Brazilian film, Sangue mineiro (1930) directed by Humberto Mauro, was an eye opener for me. All of these films have been eye openers for me. Here are great artists working all around the world in the '20s discovering this art form.

Then we have this other issue that you're talking about, which has been equally fascinating, of our films being saved in other countries. Her Wild Oat (1927), the Colleen Moore film, was found at the Czech National Film Archive and repatriated to the Academy Film Archive where Joe Lindner restored it over the course of a year. They spent a large sum of money for a silent film restoration on that. We're trying to focus better on preservation from different, unique angles this year and we decided to do something we've never done—and I'm real anxious to see how this turns out—we're going to emphasize the fact that our films frequently only exist because they're located in foreign archives. We're going to show the print of The Unknown (1927) that was found at the Cinemateque Francaise, which means it has French intertitles. I want to push that point home to audiences that silent cinema is a global culture.

Guillén: Absolutely. The bottom line is that image is transnational and speaks over national languages. I'm so enthused by the experiment with Guy Maddin reading the translations of the French intertitles. I saw him narrate My Winnepeg at last year's Toronto International and—just as you say Dennis James picked up on the energy of his audience to commandeer his performance—Guy Maddin is another performer who definitely works off his audience. He's going to pick up on their energy, they're going to be reacting to him picking up on them, and I anticipate a hilarious synergy.

Salmons: We're being a little careful because it is an experimental thing for us and that's why we've scheduled it as a late show. But Guy is so wonderful. When we gave him a short list, he immediately chose The Unknown. This could be a really cool event, both from an entertainment point of view and an educational point of view that will teach you something about—as you say—the transnationality of silent cinema.

Guillén: And I loved your anecdote about how it was found in the Cinemateque Francaise in a film canister labeled "unknown" and everyone assumed it was an unknown piece of film until someone put two and two together and realized it was the film The Unknown.

Salmons: It's incredible. That's how some of these films are found. There are a couple of famous stories like A Page of Madness (1926) being found in a rice barrel at Kinugasa's home and Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc (1928) being found in a broom closet in a Norwegian mental institute. I love these stories! The fragility of the survival of these films and the fact that The Unknown would have been sitting on a shelf at the Cinemateque Francaise for decades and they just didn't have the staff or the budget or time to go through everything in their collection. I'm not sure if it's known who the actual person was who looked at the canister and made the connection: "That could be The Unknown."

Guillén: I'm a superstitious fellow and for me it's almost as if there's a sentience to the genre: that it must survive. That it will survive.

Salmons: That's very interesting.

Guillén: And these stories of "chance" discovery are the ones that excite us because there's no chance about it. These discoveries are amazing because it's remarkable these films even exist to be found. Chances are, they should have been lost by now. And yet they keep popping up. These films will not be undone.

Salmons: [Laughs.] I love that. It may be a sentience that's operating through a lot of private collectors too. We're discovering that more and more people did keep films than people even knew they did. Films are turning up in archives—such as the find of Beyond the Rocks (1922), which was found in a Dutch collector's home—and the incredible story that this was a man who hoarded films and, apparently, he had so many films in his home that he couldn't even walk around. He had cans of nitrate next to his bed.

Guillén: That reminds me of Stephen Parr at Oddball Films. Every time I wander among those stacks I think, "My God, he lives with this!"

Salmons: Thank God for the collectors. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is like that too. Jesse just loves film. He loves finding a rare print of something. It doesn't really matter what it is; just that it's rare. Thank God for them because they're preserving these films as much as anybody. Hopefully, I get to hear when that person's passion becomes public.

Guillén: Another commendable project of the Silent Film Foundation is how the festival encourages young scholars such as Brian Darr to research and prepare the informative slide programs offered at the festival proper between the films and the program guide essays which, eventually I understand, you'll also offer online. Can you talk a bit about that?

Salmons: Hopefully we'll get to do that in the next couple of months, yes.

Guillén: For now, however, that is such a perk to go to the festival and be given these wonderful program guides full of insightful commentary and recent research. They're collector items.

Salmons: It just occurred to us at some point that we were showing the films and sharing our love of the films, but something was missing. I'm not going to say who this was but we went to a film presentation in the Castro of some silent films and the program was introduced by some man who said, "If you want to learn more about the movie, go to the library. There's plenty of good books there on silent film and I'm sure you can find something there about this movie."

Guillén: You wanted to ask for your money back.

Salmons: In a sense, yeah. There had long been some sense of dissatisfaction among the Silent Film presentation staff that—when the film was introduced—we didn't get any information. We didn't get any context. Nobody told us how the film was made, we didn't get any sense of who the directors were, and we thought, "Could we give the audience more information?" So from the very first we did one-page hand-outs that had some information on the film because we wanted people to walk out of the movie theatre and go, "I want to know more now. How do I learn more?" That's why we've had The Booksmith table for all the years too. We wanted you to be able to walk right out the door and go get a book about the film and learn. I've always believed that—once your passion's been ignited—the next thing you want to do is learn and that we should be giving people that opportunity. The program guide with the essays grew from initially just one-page hand-outs and then we started inviting people we knew were lovers of silent film to join our volunteer committee. That's been incredibly successful. All of those people on the committee do it out of sheer love.

The slide show was essentially the same thing. We would go to the Metreon or something like that and watch these highly-embarrassing Coca-Cola quizzes—"Do you recognize this star?"—and that struck us too, "Hey! There's all this time when you're entering the theatre. Instead of putting all this dumb stuff on the screen, why don't we use that space also?" That was another way to give the audience entertaining opportunities to be educated. Hopefully, within the next couple of months, we'll start to get the essays and slideshows up on line. We've set up on our new website an archive page where the essays and slideshows will go to. I've been very frustrated by the fact that the only way that people get to see the slideshows is to attend the festival and that all this incredible information that the volunteers have amassed and put together hasn't been more accessible.

Guillén: For last year's Silent Film Festival, I was happy to talk with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne and the power-behind-the-throne Charlie Tabesh regarding their presentation of Camille (1921). Robert made an observation that I found quite intriguing. He said that West Coast audiences are much more into silent cinema and appreciative of the silent classics on TCM than East Coast audiences because of the time difference. The way their programming is scheduled, the silent films are shown on the East Coast after midnight but we get them earlier in the evening. What is the connection between TCM and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival?

Salmons: Initially, the interest with TCM was MGM. When we first started doing the festival, if we wanted to get our hands on an MGM film, we had to go to Turner because Ted Turner had bought the MGM library and Turner Entertainment was the source for all MGM silent films. We initially dealt with Dick May who worked with Kevin Brownlow and others to create new prints and restorations. Dick May worked with Kevin Brownlow to create the restoration of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that I saw. Turner was spending a lot of money on restoring the films in his archive because he—for some reason—felt that he had something that could generate profit whereas most major studios felt they could do nothing with the holdings from their silent era. We're talking about the era before the DVD boom. So initially we were dealing with Turner because we wanted MGM films.

Over the years, we've gotten many films from them. Of course Turner was bought by Warner Brothers so the connection with Turner weakened a little bit. Now if we wanted to get an MGM film, we had to go to Warner Brothers and ask them for a print from the Turner Collection in their holdings. It became complex. So initially our dealings with TCM was specifically because we were securing prints and Dick May and other people at Turner had been putting a lot of money into restoring actual film before the boom in digital restoration, which is now where a lot of it is happening. When Turner restores a film now, it's digital. No 35mm print is made. The restoration that was done—how long has it been now?—five or six years ago or more of Greed (1924), the reconstruction that Rick Schmidlin did, Turner funded that but it was a digital restoration only. MOMA showed that five or six years ago and I got to see a video presentation of Schmidlin's work and all I could think was, "I can't believe this."

Guillén: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has never projected digitally?

Salmons: We have shown clips digitally. I have no doubt that somewhere in the future, we'll experiment with a digital presentation.

Guillén: Don't let me know. [Laughter.]

Salmons: I know. But it's because it's going that way. I always want the festival to emphasize 35mm and emphasize the original format that the films were shown in; but, sooner or later, just as an experiment, we'll show a digital restoration digitally because we'll want to make our audience aware that that's the state of preservation. Now you're seeing restorations happening without a film print being generated. There are some restorations happening like that. I haven't seen one myself yet; but, a few people—including Dennis James—have told me that the cost is coming down and the quality of the restoration is astonishing. At the same time, all archivists agree that digital is not the way to go for archiving film.

Guillén: They don't know how long digital will last, do they? Isn't there some concern that it won't hold up?

Salmons: From what I'm hearing from archivists like Pat Loffin, who's the head of George Eastman House, is that digital is not an archival medium at all. Part of the reason is that it doesn't decompose; it just goes bad instantly. If you're starting to lose a film, you know you're losing it and you can then hopefully schedule restoration; but, you can lose a digital file from one second to the next.

Guillén: It's just like losing a file on the computer. It can corrupt.

Salmons: Yeah. They're still saying that film—properly stored—is the best archival medium. I'm worried that we'll reach a point in the next five or ten years where 35mm projectors will vanish out of movie theatres. The Castro Theatre, I know, is excited about that. [Laughter.] I don't think it will happen tomorrow; but, it's a concern in the next five or ten years. The same way that I'm concerned that the Wurlitzer can continue to function and that people like Ed Stout can continue to maintain it so that musicians like Dennis can continue to play it. We're concerned for the future of showing the films in the format they were meant to be seen.

Guillén: Which is why I quoted William Blake about kissing the joy as it flies. I believe San Franciscan audiences have become somewhat aware of what's happening and—just as fleeting as love can be—cherish the love while they have it. There's nothing else you can do.

Salmons: We're all very suspicious of technology.

Guillén: Are these sea changes the reason you've applied the focus this year to film preservation? And why you're profiling key figures in film preservation?

Salmons: A little bit more because this issue of future preservation is becoming more and more prevalent all around us now. I do want to be focusing more on that. There has always been a desire to bring the archivists and preservationists and collectors and unique individuals like David Shepard out in front so that the audience can see that there are actually people alive today, right now, who are making it possible for them to see these films.

Guillén: Talk to me about the development of the Silent Film Preservation Fellowship.

Salmons: This is brand new, put together by Stacey Wisnia, our Executive Director, and Rob Byrne, who is the Vice President of our Board of Directors. Rob is a success story for all preservation in that he was a technology executive up until this year, at which time he turned 50 and decided to change careers and is now going into film preservation himself. He's going to go to the school in Amsterdam. He's studying Dutch right now, enrolled in an immersion class in Dutch, and will be going to Amsterdam in October. All I can say is that another film preservationist born is always a good thing. The preservationists being turned out by the Selznick School are all instantly being hired by archives. We're seeing a new generation of film preservationism happening. There seems to be some excitement about that and people are moving in that direction.

So we wanted to do something to bring more attention to the fact that there seems to be a lot of new enthusiasm for film preservation. At the Pordenone Silent Film Festival every year they have a program in connection with Haghefilm Conservation Labs in Amsterdam—who has been a sponsor of our festival for a few years too—where they offer a fellowship to a student who's graduated from one of the film programs like the Selznick School or the Amsterdam School. An archive selects a film that's on their list of films that need to be preserved—usually a short—and that student works with a lab to preserve the film and create a print. That program was premiered at Pordenone and they've been doing that for several years.

With some funds from the festival, we've preserved a silent film, a cartoon, at the UCLA Film and Television Archives. We've always wanted to get more into actual preservation, not merely promote the need for preservation but do some preserving. This is another step in that direction: to promote the idea of preservation by selecting a graduate student once a year, selected by the organization itself. This year, for example, the Selznick School picked the student who will receive the fellowship.

Guillén: Is the Selznick School the leading school for film preservation in the United States?

Salmons: Yeah. At the moment they are the preeminent preservation school in the United States. UCLA offers some courses. And there are a few other places in the world where you can get a degree in preservation. It seems to be picking up steam, as I said. So the idea behind the award is to promote greater knowledge of that happening and to play a little bit of a role in making that happen and encouraging that to happen. This year the film has been selected and the student has been selected and they'll be at the preservation program on Saturday morning at the festival. We'll introduce them, announce what the film is, and then—on Monday morning as soon as the festival's over—the student will go right to Monaco Labs and start her fellowship. She graduated from the Selznick School on June 20, we sent a certificate announcing the fellowship to her, and then we'll be bringing her out for the festival, and then she'll be here for an entire month preserving the film.

Guillén: My final question. It's always humor-inducing and warm-hearted that the McRoskey Mattress Factory sponsors San Francisco's Silent Film Festival. How did they come on board to become a major sponsor?

Salmons: I'm so happy you're asking this question! [Laughter.] The short answer is: they love silent film too. The head salesman at the McRoskey Mattress Factory store on Market Street, Larry Cronander, is a big lover of silent film. He had been coming to the festival for several years. He's especially a big fan of Rudolph Valentino. The year we showed The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—when it came full circle for me and I finally got to show the film that inspired me, with Dennis on the Wurlitzer—Larry approached us and said, "Y'know, I'm from the McRoskey Mattress Factory and we've been here in San Francisco for 100 years and history is very important to our organization, the President of our organization is the daughter of the man who founded it, we love silent film, and we're trying to find cultural events to get involved with in this city, and wonder if you'd be interested in collaborating with us?" I went to their office and they showed me their archive of all these incredible photographs of the history of their organization and they even had some pictures that showed silent film advertising on billboards in the background around the store and I realized, wow, we're connected in a way through mutual love of history and Larry's love of silent film. I have to tell you that more people get the biggest kick out of the McRoskey Mattress Factory's involvement. It's completely genuine. They love what we do and we really like them too.

Guillén: Let alone the incredible excitation that maybe this year my raffle ticket will win me the $5,000 shopping spree at McRoskey!

Salmons: [Laughter.] We're lowering the ticket price this year so it makes it even more attractive. Every festival needs sponsors. We need a base of individual donors, which is our largest base, and you need sponsors, and you receive grantor support, and you hope that your relationship with sponsors is honest and sincere and that a sponsor isn't picking on your festival purely because they're hoping to profit from it, that their involvement is because they enjoy what you do. You hope that you enjoy your sponsor. It's just been the most enjoyable relationship. They're such nice people. Robin McRoskey Azevedo didn't share Larry's enthusiasm for silent film initially; but, it only took a couple of years of Robin coming to the festival and now he's on our Board of Directors!

Guillén: Stephen, thank you so much for all of this history. You're doing such a wonderful job and I'm looking forward to this year's Silent Film Festival.

* * *

Brian Darr gave us early hints of this year's San Francisco Silent Film line-up at Hell on Frisco Bay.

Stephen Salmons is so charismatically conversant that it's one of the few times I wished I did podcasts instead of transcriptions, because he deserves to be heard. Fortunately, several others have recorded their conversations with him. Donna Hill's thorough podcast preview of this year's Silent Film Festival at her site Stolen Moments is an indispensable guide. It runs at about an hour's length but is completely worth the listen.

Mick LaSalle's Chronicle podcast from last year contains some hilarious banter. As does the session when he and Salmons discuss Lars and the Real Girl.

Killer Movie Reviews also has a recorded interview with Salmons from the 2003 program. Angie Coiro speaks with Salmons, among others, on a 2004 KQED broadcast on silent cinema.

Cross-published on Twitch.